Denise Sanders knows what separates those who just live and those who experience living. It is this genuine lust for life that drives her passion for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth (BASE) jumping. Whether it’s leaping from the world’s tallest waterfall in Venezuela, or Monte Brento cliff in Italy, or any number of objects in the United States, like the New River Gorge Bridge, Denise finds meaning in every second of every fall.
With nearly 300 jumps to her name, Denise says every one is as exhilarating as the last, and as life energizing as the first. She is exuberant, dynamic, colorful (literally – from her blue and purple hair down to her neon-striped toes) and exudes an energy that can only be obtained by something most of us cannot understand.
Denise is part of a global community of BASE jumpers, essentially skydivers who found a way to ante up the adrenaline. She is among a small number of women who make up about 12 percent of the BASE-jumping community. Despite that, she says her male counterparts are respectful and encouraging. In fact, Denise met her husband, Tom, in the sport.
True BASE jumpers have experience on all 4 types of objects and have been issued an official BASE number.
“We don’t have a death wish. It’s exactly the opposite. We are the biggest lovers of life,” said Denise. “It’s about insight into yourself, and it’s about finding out what you are made of.”
For every jump, the thrill of life and the potential for death is literally measured in seconds. A jump like Angel Falls in Venezuela (3,212 feet) is 28 seconds to impact. That means a leisurely 14-to-16 seconds of free fall and 30 seconds to enjoy the view floating beneath the canopy. Sometimes, Denise takes a nail-biting 4-second delay before opening her chute on a jump, with only 5-½ seconds to impact.
What’s not so easily calculated is the fact that jumpers pick up speed the longer they fall. Estimating the distance between antenna guy-wires, and wind speed differentials that affect jumpers from the time they jump to the time they land are also tough ones. These are all factors that dictate decisions during a jump.
Denise and the New River Gorge Bridge
I caught up with Denise at the 35th annual New River Gorge Bridge Day in West Virginia. It takes place the 3rd Saturday in October every year. Since 1996, Denise, who lives in Hawaii, has made the trek to leap from the New River Gorge Bridge. The completion of the world’s largest single arch bridge in 1977 started the tradition of Bridge Day, which originally permitted jumpers to indulge for 6 hours. Today, BASE jumpers are the main event.
With an estimated 80,000 spectators from around the world, participants jump from the bridge, rappel down the side or are catapulted over the edge like a human cannonball dropping 876 feet to the ground.
ALL jumpers on Bridge Day must pass rigorous screenings and have at least 100 jumps under their belts.
“Body flight is every kid’s dream. Life beats that out of you. We never lost that – everyone is Superman or Wonder woman. It’s like living out a childhood dream over and over,” said Denise.
It is easy to label BASE jumpers as careless or crazy – and people do. I have to admit, I did too. Denise’s electric blue/purple hair and pierced tongue might even reinforce that notion, but I learned very quickly that my perception could not be more skewed. Experienced BASE jumpers like Denise are meticulous in their preparations and strategic in their execution. They are safety conscious first and foremost.
“Every jump gets my attention. The moment I make the commitment – the moment I leave the object – the moment my center of gravity shifts – once I’ve crossed that line – it’s the best feeling in the world,” explained Denise.
When she is not jumping from objects, Denise is flight instructor for her company, Paradise Air in Hawaii. It is a flight school for those who want to learn to fly a 2-seat powered hang glider. She is also an FAA certified mechanic and holds a nursing degree.
While BASE jumpers seem to exemplify those who are bound by no limits, Denise says knowing her limit is what keeps her alive.
“It’s not uncommon to put a lot of time into a jump to say no. I’ve gotten the heebie-jeebies before and I have to listen to that gut feeling,” said Denise.
Watching BASE jumpers in action is jaw dropping. When things go well, it’s hard to remember that this is one of the most extreme sports in existence. It is highly dangerous and there are many legality issues, especially in the United States where BASE jumping is prohibited in most places. There are rare exceptions — ncluding Bridge Day — when special permits are granted.
Hanging out with Denise is like drinking 8 cups of coffee – I can’t help but absorb her contagious energy and zest for life. Fortunately, for us mere mortals, there are less dangerous ways to siphon a taste of the open air that attracts her to BASE jumping.
The next best thing …
West Virginia outfitter Adventures on the Gorge offers a Bridge Walk experience that allows you to scale a catwalk across the New River Gorge Bridge. Suspended 870 feet above the rushing water, with harnesses and expert guides, you get a unique perspective on what the jumpers see as they free fall to the landing base below.
You can also mark your calendar for Bridge Day next year, October 17, 2015, and be a part of the excitement when people like Denise define what it means to experience living.
To read more about Anitetra Hamper’s adventures, visit ThreeWordPress.
This Retro WON was first published on Nov. 13, 2014.
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